Set Your Marathon Goals Carefully

By Dan Peterson, TeamSnap’s Guest Writer about sports science and skill development for young athletes.

In the month of October, thousands of runners are nearing the end of their summer-long training schedules for their autumn marathon race.  For some, that may mean taking a realistic look at a goal that was made 3-9 months ago to make sure that they are prepared for the grueling mileage left to conquer.

Marathon Running

In some cases, due to a nagging injury or simply not getting in the miles required, runners may be having doubts about their fitness but still have a tough time giving up their dream.  What they decide to do is linked to their specific motivation to achieving their goal according to new research from sport psychologists at the University of Birmingham.

As discussed in a previous post on Achievement Goal Theory, we learned that athletes have either a fixed or a growth mindset when it comes to facing challenges.  If an athlete feels their level of skill and endurance is set to a fixed level, then they will set goals at a lower level to avoid embarrassment in front of others.  However, a growth mindset empowers an athlete through a belief that they can accomplish whatever they set out to do.

Professor Nikos Ntoumanis, an exercise and sport psychologist from the University of Birmingham wondered how our motivation towards a goal would affect our commitment to getting it done even when the going gets tough.

His team gathered 180 athletes for two different experiments involving difficult stationary cycling tests in a lab.  While there was a monitor in front of the athletes to give them constant data feedback on their speed and distance covered, it was deliberately manipulated to give false readings (i.e. set to display 1 mile when actually 1.5 miles had been covered).  Ntoumanis wanted to see how the athletes would respond under stress and discouragement.

First, the team found that athletes who had reported a growth mindset would push harder and longer to achieve the goal given to them at the beginning of the experiment when compared to the fixed mindset athletes.

Unfortunately, that “can-do” attitude can become a problem when faced with adversity.  The growth mindset group found it much harder to abandon the goal even when it was obvious they couldn’t achieve it.

The research appears in the current issue of the Journal of Personality.

“We found autonomous motives such as enjoyment or personal importance were a double-edged sword,” explained Professor Constantine Sedikides, a member of the research team and a social psychologist from the University of Southampton. “Athletes with autonomous (growth mindset) motives put in more effort and persisted for longer which helped them reach higher levels of performance with increasingly difficult but attainable goals. Yet when the goal became unachievable, they had great difficulty realizing this, which led to brooding over the failure as the athletes struggled to disengage from the goal.”

To break out of this overachiever trap, Ntoumanis suggests using a daily training diary to measure performance towards interim goals.  By relying on data rather than emotions, decisions can be made as to the feasibility of continuing on the current path.  By adjusting mid-course, athletes can be more productive as they reach for long-term goals.  In this video, he explains the study and how this goal-setting ability helped Wimbledon champ Andy Murray.

“Our experiments showed the importance of a person realizing early enough when it was better to continue striving for a goal or when it was best to let go and adopt another similar goal,” said Ntoumanis. “Our research also showed that the reasons behind a sportsperson’s goal are important to know, not just the actual goal.”

By understanding your own motivation and mindset, you can make better decisions about taking on 26.2 miles or maybe just 13.1 for now.


Daniel Peterson is an author and consultant specializing at the intersection of neuroscience and sports performance. He is the co-founder and director of 80 Percent Mental Consulting, along with Dr. Leonard Zaichkowsky, world-renowned sports performance psychologist and former professor at Boston University. Their new book, The Playmaker’s Advantage,  published by Jeter Publishing/Simon & Schuster, is available wherever books are sold.

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